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‘Flexibility is not cost-free’, partners warn junior lawyers

Partners across the country are worried that the next generation of leaders in law will be at a disadvantage, as the mainstreaming of WFH arrangements means emerging professionals are missing crucial learning opportunities.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 27 October 2022 Careers
‘Flexibility is not cost-free’, partners warn junior lawyers
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There are likely very few law firm partners, if any, anywhere in Australia, which — at this point — does not recognise and appreciate the myriad benefits (particularly for one’s health) that can and do materialise from allowing staff to work away from the office, and in manners that make idiosyncratic sense for them.  

However, getting somewhat lost in the shuffle is the vocational danger arising for junior lawyers, who are spending most of their time working from home — or, perhaps, more time out of the office than is arguably prudent for their professional development.

Tony Chong, the Perth managing partner for Squire Patton Boggs, said that this is “costing the next generation of lawyers”.


“They risk missing opportunities to learn the intangible skills critical to building a successful career,” he submitted.

“Sitting in on client meetings, sitting in on a call with the other side’s lawyers, watching a deal be hammered out — the skills required to master these parts of our work are learned observationally.

“Law is a people business, and if you’re not physically around people, you’re not learning the business.”

Partners’ reflections on their own development

Moray & Agnew partner Gabrielle Watts reflected, in conversation with Lawyers Weekly, that she likes to think of herself as being “on the more laid-back, somewhat progressive side” when it comes to remote and hybrid working arrangements.

She does, however, find herself reminiscing about her own time as a junior lawyer and thinking about how lucky she was to have been exposed to the everyday goings-on around the firm.

“Overhearing partners at the time discuss cases, clients, opponents, experiences of the bench, and so on — I realise now that I was like a little sponge just soaking up all the incidental knowledge I didn’t even know I was gaining,” she mused.

“This is one of the experiences that junior lawyers taking the opportunity to WFH most, if not all, the time are missing.”

Baker McKenzie partner and board member Antony Rumboll supported this: “I reflect on my own career and the benefits I received from face-to-face interactions (both good and bad) with my own teams and mentors … my progression would have been very different had I been working remotely.”

It is true, Holding Redlich partner Alexandra Tighe said, that times have changed, and those in the partnership have to appreciate that junior lawyers value being able to work from home and utilise remote/hybrid arrangements.

“For many of us partners, this is not how we were ‘brought up’, so we have to adjust our thinking to accommodate the new way,” she ceded.

“Many of us also enjoy working from home, too.”

However, she added, “the reality is: if we don’t come in, no one comes in!”

“It is important that we have some sort of flexibility offering, or we know that junior staff will leave for a firm that does,” she said.

Learning by osmosis

According to Squire Patton Boggs Sydney managing partner Campbell Davidson, teachable moments “mostly happen organically” as opposed to in pre-arranged phone calls.

“When I’m grabbing a coffee or walking to court or to a meeting, I’m able to give my fee earners one-to-one attention; providing background, explaining the strategy or simply sharing aspects of life as a lawyer with them,” he listed.

“That’s when you learn the most important skills required to be an effective lawyer.”

Added to these difficulties, Ms Watts said, is the fact that “a lot of court matters (at least in my practice area) are dealt with via the online court or similar virtual platforms, such that submissions and the like are often made in ‘message’ format, rather than delivered orally, and there is much-reduced opportunity to observe and learn from other advocates”.

The cliché of learning by osmosis is often spoken about, Hamilton Locke partner Nicholas Edwards articulated, but he identified himself as “a firm believer in it”.

“Modelling behaviours, observing soft skills and getting the opportunity to hear the ‘big picture’ are critical to development as both lawyers and leaders — this can be hard to achieve working remotely,” he said.

“It is fair to say that we are seeing that the ‘high performers’ within the firm generally spend a decent chunk of time in the office interacting with their colleagues and being active participants.”

Such learning does not stop, Ms Tighe outlined, even if one has attained partnership.

“I often stroll down the hallway on my way to a new client meeting and grab a junior from their office to join me. Sitting in a room with my client and a junior on the screen on the wall just doesn’t really have the same vibe, and I find juniors are less likely to speak up and offer practical assistance (like pointing me to a particular document in the meeting) when attending from home,” she said.

Put another way, Ms Watts remarked: “Marked-up advices, using tracked changes, doesn’t quite have the same impact ...”

Mental health concerns

An even more pressing consideration, Mr Rumboll said, is the possibility of junior lawyers blurring the boundaries between work, play and sleep while they are at home.

“I do worry [about] how it impacts your mental health over the longer term. I know COVID-19 lockdowns impacted my own mental health, particularly in terms of the separation between work and home, and I made a conscious decision to return to the office as soon as I could,” he reflected.

“I just hope that we are not experiencing a false economy. In summary, I think a balance is always proven to be best in life. Why can’t we have flexibility in working from home, combined with meaningful time spent in the office and the balance of those benefits, whilst managing the downsides?”

Ms Watts backed this: “I have also noticed the mental health benefits that coming into the office can have, and how this side of things can start to decline after even a few days of WFH, with less personal interaction.”

In catering to varying wellness needs, Ms Tighe said, it “goes without saying” that junior lawyers who are happy and engaged are more productive and less likely to leave.

“Feeling well supported, supervised with a strong sense of belonging is a critical part of our investment in our future leaders,” she argued.

“We find it more challenging to engender team culture and to invest in on-the-job training under a hybrid model where some are in the office and some are at home.

“Now that lockdown is over, it is about finding the right balance between the two.”

Moreover, Herbert Smith Freehills partner Christine Tran suggested, leaders in law firms have to understand that there are many varied reasons why some people are less willing to come into the office compared to others.

“We need to be cautious in how we label the challenge to avoid generalising and misdiagnosing the issues,” she stressed.

“The pandemic has shown that remote working is very possible in the legal profession. The elusive ‘work/life balance’ might actually be achievable under this new flexible work model.”

Embracing flexibility (at least to an extent)

Of course, some responsibility for getting junior lawyers back into the office, Ms Tran pointed out, must fall on the shoulders of partners themselves.

While emerging professionals in her own team have been attending the office regularly, she recalled: “I do recognise that there is a general challenge across the profession to ensure we are maximising the benefits of face-to-face interactions and the benefits of remote working.”

As such, this broader conversation is, Mr Edwards surmised, a nuanced one.

No one, he said, wants to undo the positive progress that arose from COVID-19, in terms of flexibility and recognition that everyone has things outside work they should prioritise.

“I, for one, still benefit from the change in attitude, and it has allowed me to spend time with my young son, an opportunity I don’t think my predecessors necessarily had,” he noted.

“However, one needs to also recognise that in many areas of law (especially restructuring and insolvency where I practice), collaboration and interaction with colleagues is critical to developing and producing the best outcome for our clients.”

His own firm, he detailed, has taken a “deliberate approach to encouraging people back in more regularly”, with “people experience ambassadors” appointed — including himself — to find new and creative ways to bring staff into the office, including through a range of social initiatives.

“It is clear that a carrot rather than stick approach works best, and to be honest, these initiatives also just make it more fun and enjoyable for everyone,” he said.

For her firm, Ms Tighe said, the partnership has tried “not to be too prescriptive”.

“We are a large national firm with multiple practice groups; there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In my team, for example, litigators have a very unpredictable workflow, so the junior lawyers know that the days they work from home will vary from week to week,” she said.

A warning to juniors

However, Ms Tran warned, “flexibility is not cost-free”, for those who may be skewing the balance between working from home versus the office too heavily in favour of their personal preferences.

“By way of example, there are missed opportunities for incidental professional development and potential adverse impacts on the social contract with colleagues and the team’s ability to achieve successful outcomes,” she said.

“The key is ensuring that everyone appreciates the consequences of the choice of working in the office versus working from home, at an individual level and team level.”

Ms Tighe made similar remarks, noting that her firm’s preference is “for the majority of people to be in the office the majority of the time” — particularly given the “knowledge gaps” that are becoming apparent.

“At the end of the day, we have a duty to our junior staff to ensure they have a positive experience with plenty of partner access, training and help to build their confidence in the role,” she pointed out.

“I have noticed there are many knowledge gaps for many junior lawyers as a hangover from online university.”

Luckily for her and her colleagues (and for Ms Tran), she noted, “our juniors actually prefer to be in the office as they are so over being stuck at home and want to see law in the ‘real world’.”


Looking ahead, Mr Edwards advised, junior lawyers need to appreciate that the last two to three years have been an anomaly.

The practice of law, he said, is “more than sitting on video conferences or busting out work in their pyjamas”.

“[It] involves interaction with other people — be it the other side of a matter or indeed amongst a team. These interactions are critical to growing and developing, and to being future leaders,” he noted.

The next generation of future leaders in Australia’s legal profession, Ms Tran added, will “likely be drawn” from the cohort of individuals who recognise the need to strike the right balance.

They are the ones, she said, who are “making sensible decisions that enable them to develop effectively and work sustainably”.

Ultimately, Mr Rumboll noted, BigLaw firms like Bakers are committed to flexibility and the upsides from such arrangements — including and especially more time with family, less commute and cheaper for those concerned about the rising cost of living.

“I empathise with the population of younger lawyers and business professionals, but I believe a balance between working in the home and office is vital for them, particularly when they risk being hindered in their progression without the organic and immersive exposure they gain in an office environment,” he concluded.

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